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Dehydration Headaches: Signs, Treatment, and Prevention

Updated on Jul 20, 2021 by Dr. Amr Hosny (Headache Specialist) of Advanced Headache Center

If excessive sweating or other conditions like vomiting, diarrhea, or some chronic illnesses are leaving you dehydrated and down with headaches, seek medical help quickly before it turns serious. Visit an expert and a trained physician to have your condition diagnosed and treated most effectively to get rid of dehydration and the distressing headaches that follow. The experienced doctors at the Advanced Headache Center pinpoint the causes of dehydration and prescribe a personalized treatment and management plan that keeps you hydrated and provides lasting relief from headache pain.

Dehydration and Headaches

Dehydration is the loss of fluid from the body. It occurs when the body loses more fluid than it is taking in. When the normal water content of the body is reduced, it upsets the balance of minerals in the body that affect its functions too. 
 
Water makes up over two-thirds of a healthy human body, and lack of water in the body can cause a headache or trigger a migraine. Sometimes dehydration results from other conditions such as vomiting or diarrhea, but insufficient water consumption can also lead to dehydration. Regardless of the cause of dehydration, you could end up with a bad headache due to low fluid levels in the body. 

How Dehydration Triggers Headaches

Dehydration headaches occur due to a lack of fluids in the body or when the body loses too many electrolytes, including sodium, chloride, and potassium. The headaches can be mild, or they can be as severe and painful as a migraine, depending on the individual situation and symptoms. 

A sensation of pain and pressure occurs when the brain shrinks away from the skull due to a lack of water or too much fluid loss. This contraction is temporary, and the brain gets back to its normal position after proper rehydration. 

Dehydration and Headache Symptoms

Most people do not experience all the listed symptoms of dehydration, but even a few of them can help to identify if you are suffering from dehydration. Some people do not experience dehydration until it becomes severe.  

The resulting headache can be dull or intense. You may feel the pain at the front, back, side, or all over the head. It might be a pulsating or throbbing pain on both sides of the head that worsens with time and movement. Moving your head, bending down, or walking might aggravate the discomfort, and you will feel heavy pressure on the head. 

Dehydration headaches are different from tension headaches as they do not cause facial pain or pressure or pain at the back of the neck. Sometimes dehydration headaches are accompanied by nausea and visual aura too, which leads many to believe they have a migraine attack. 

Other symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Reduced urination or darkly colored urine
  • Confusion, dizziness, or fatigue
  • Dry, sticky mouth, dry lips, dry eyes
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Low blood pressure 
  • Increased heart rate

 
Severe dehydration can lead to intense symptoms that include:

  • Lack of sweating
  • Sunken eyes
  • Fever and delirium
  • Shriveled skin
  • Unconsciousness
  • Muscle cramps

 
Migraine sufferers face difficulty distinguishing dehydration headache pain from migraines as symptoms like nausea or upset stomach are also present during the predome. Dehydration can cause nausea due to low blood pressure. 
 
Seeking emergency medical help is very necessary as dehydration is a serious condition and leads to further complications if it is not addressed timely. Appropriate treatment can take care of both migraine and dehydration headaches and relieve the painful symptoms. 

Dehydration Headache Causes

Dehydration headaches occur when the body does not get enough water. Normally, the volume of water going in the body is equal to the volume of water leaving the body, but if this balance gets upset, it can result in dehydration. 

Dehydration can also be an outcome of physical exertion or hot weather that causes excessive sweating. Sometimes high humidity also leads to sweating and dehydration. 

Other conditions that increase the risk of dehydration include:

  • Diarrhea – some migraine patients also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome that compounds the problem
  • Vomiting – too much vomiting can lead to dehydration in the body
  • Extreme sweating – excessive sweating depletes the body of its water content
  • High fever – the continuous high temperature can also cause dehydration
  • Excessive urination – some people need to urinate more, especially during migraine attacks, and it can result in a deficiency of water in the body

Some people are at higher risk of dehydration. They include:

  • People living at high altitudes or in hot climates
  • Young children and infants
  • Elderly people
  • Individuals with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease
  • People taking diuretics, medications that increase urination
  • Endurance athletes

 
Dehydration headaches are commonly faced by people when the water content in the body begins to drop and begins to disturb normal body functions. These symptoms help in identifying the causes behind dehydration and the subsequent headaches effectively. 

Treating Dehydration Headaches

The most effective way to deal with dehydration headaches is to treat the dehydration, and it takes care of the pain. Overhydration should be avoided in such cases as drinking too much water too soon may aggravate nausea.  
 
Primary treatments include:

  • Increasing fluid intake and drinking water frequently to replenish the lost fluids in the body
  • Sucking on ice cubes
  • Replacing lost electrolytes with a sports drink or pediatric electrolyte replacement solution

 
Usually, we obtain all the hydration we need from foods and beverages, but excessive sweating, urination, diarrhea, or vomiting reduces the electrolyte balance that affects the way the body works. In emergency cases, the doctor may give additional liquids through an IV to treat dehydration and migraines. 

Staying away from excess sugar and caffeinated beverages along with over-the-counter medications that contain added caffeine is necessary, as they can trigger migraines. Also, caffeine is a diuretic and leads to an increase in urination. 

Other treatments suggested by the doctor to relieve dehydration headaches include:

  • Basic over the counter medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin
  • Anti-emetics or anti-nausea drugs in case the dehydration headaches are resulting from migraine and causing nausea
  • A cold compress against the forehead while lying down in a dark and quiet room to alleviate the pain and provide some respite

Severe dehydration should not be taken lightly as it can lead to life-threatening situations like kidney or brain damage, seizures, shock, or death. Discussing the causes and symptoms of your dehydration headaches with a pain management doctor can help to keep them away. You may be asked to temporarily reduce physical activity and avoid the heat to reduce sweating and other triggers. 
 

Preventing Dehydration and the Following Headaches

Keeping healthy levels of hydration in the body is the best way to preventing dehydration headaches. There are no firm guidelines, but experts suggest women should drink at least four to seven eight-ounce cups of water while men should drink between six and eleven cups. People who suffer from migraines must drink an additional 1.5 liters of water along with their regular intake. 

Tips on keeping yourself hydrated:

  • Keep a jug or bottle with the amount of water you must drink and make sure to finish it by the end of the day
  • Carry a water bottle with you when you go out
  • Add some sugar-free drink mix, fruit, or mint to enhance the water taste
  • Keep water with you while working out
  • Eat foods rich in fluids like cucumbers or other vegetables and fresh fruits
  • Increase fluid intake during the day to keep yourself hydrated
  • Drink more water if you are suffering from fever and infections as they can create grounds for dehydration

 
Dehydration headaches are commonly faced by people who are too busy to drink water from time to time, sweat excessively, or take diuretics. For migraine sufferers, dehydration can act as a trigger and lead to a migraine attack. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps to prevent both kidney and head pain. You must focus on the quantity of water you should drink during the day to prevent these agonizing episodes. 

If you continue to suffer from dehydration headaches or develop migraines even after getting adequate hydration, consult an experienced physician.  The headache specialist will investigate your symptoms and find the underlying causes behind recurring pain using state-of-the-art diagnostic technologies and a physical exam. 

Headaches are the most common causes of pain that can affect life to a great extent. Do not let these dehydration headaches disturb your daily routine and life. Consult an expert medical practitioner to get the best advice on preventing dehydration and keeping this annoying pain away. The specialist doctors at Advanced Headache Center help you understand the signs of dehydration and incorporate adequate intake of water in your routine to enjoy good health in the long run.

Dr. Amr Hosny has either authored or reviewed and approved this content. Advanced Headache Center 41 5th Avenue,
New York, NY 10003
(646) 419-3105